Journey Back in Time : The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore, MD

Blacks in wax.

I chuckled when I first heard the phrase on a radio commercial while driving home from work one afternoon. “Comical, yet clever,” I thought as I turned up the volume, just to make sure I heard what I thought I heard.

The gravelly-voiced announcer continued to read his script, and I soon realized that it wasn’t a phrase; it was part of a name. The commercial was an open invitation to radio listeners to visit the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
I admit - the only wax museum I ever heard of was Madame Tussauds in Hollywood, and I only heard of it through watching several episodes of Entertainment Tonight, and shaking my head in disgust at the glamorous correspondents who tried to “interview” some of the life-like wax figures. (It’s funny once, but after the second time, it’s not.)  Even so, the figures looked amazingly real.
I wondered if the ones inside the Great Blacks in Wax Museum looked the same.
So, I gassed up the Sonata, packed a few snacks, and drove 2 ½ hours to Baltimore to find out.

The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is located
inside a renovated firehouse. It was established in 1983.

The museum is located in the Oliver neighborhood, inside a white brick building at the intersection of East North Avenue and North Bond Street.
There is no official museum parking, but I was lucky enough to find a spot just about 15 steps away from the museum’s wooden front doors.
I walked inside and paid the $13 admission fee. A young lady at the front desk then handed a single sheet of paper to me, filled with everything I would see on my self-guided tour. I noticed there were 10 exhibits in all, so I started with one of the most difficult ones – the slave ship.
This is tame compared to the other images
below the deck of the ship.
 It was an eerie feeling to walk down below the deck of a 19th century slave ship – especially since I was the only one inside the museum. (I had arrived early.)  The steps were wooden and narrow, lit only by a small lantern hanging from the ceiling. There were two wax figures of White men to my left. As soon as my foot touched the fifth step, a recording began to play of their conversation, which startled me. “Captain, this is a light cargo,” shouted one of the men as waves lapped in the background. “Don’t worry,” laughed the captain, “It looks like we have another round of slaves coming in.” I stopped and looked back at the figure wearing a captain’s hat and a striped white and black shirt. I said to myself, “I know he’s not talking about me…” Although I knew the recording was only used to set the scene, it actually made me a bit nervous as I descended farther down into the dimly lit belly of the ship. I was on edge because I didn’t know what I would see, yet at the same time, I did know.
The atmosphere was hot and humid, and as I used my sheet of paper to fan myself, I walked around to visit each figure and read his/her story. I read accounts of what happened to rebellious cargo, sick and dying cargo, child cargo, and female cargo on the ship. I saw a naked woman hanging from a rope with a deep gash from her breast to her stomach. I spotted children’s feet hanging out of what looked like a cage. I noticed a man with his mouth open in agony as one of the ship’s crew members branded his right shoulder.
With sweat running down my back, I stood there for a while, wondering what categories my ancestors were in.
If I felt hot, nervous, and uncomfortable while standing in this replica for 20 minutes, how did they feel in reality, trapped on a ship anywhere between one to six months?
I turned to my right and saw a wooden stand in a corner. A bright blue pitcher filled with water sat on top of it, along with a clear vase. There was also a group of disposable communion cups on the stand. A paper was posted above the display, highlighting the meaning of African libation. If visitors desired to honor their ancestors through this ritual, they could pour a small amount of water into one of the cups, and then pour that cup of water into the vase, while calling out their ancestors’ names.  As I emptied my cup of water into the vase, I thought about my grandparents, great-grandparents, and all of the people who came before them that endured more in life than I could ever imagine.

Henry "Box" Brown, a slave from Richmond, shipped
himself to freedom.

On my way out of the exhibit, I saw four individual, black and white portraits of two men and two women.  I assumed they were slaves. The pictures showed every wrinkle in their weathered faces as they stared intently into the camera with no hint of a smile.  Above each picture was the word “Remember”.

"Cripple Caesar" was a runaway teenage slave from Maryland.
His legs and feet were amputated due to severe frostbite, so
he couldn't escape to freedom with the other slaves, simply
because he couldn't keep up. However, that didn't stop him.
One day, he crawled to freedom.

Makeda, Queen of Sheba. Her union with
King Solomon produced a son named Menelik.
Her dynasty ended in 1975 with the death of
Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

Those faces stayed with me as I moved on to “meet” Queen Nzinga, Nat Turner, Phillis Wheatley, Billie Holiday, Haile Selassie, and many others  in exhibits such as “Ancient Africa”, “Horror of Captivity”, “Entrepreneurs”, “Walking in the Footsteps of our Ancestors”, “Space Frontier”, “Lynching Room” (an extremely disturbing exhibit that may not be suitable for children), and two other main exhibit halls, which featured wax figures and stories of top inventors, educators, religious leaders, writers, poets, doctors – the list goes on and on.

The font is small, but this is just a portion of the names of
5000 Blacks who were "legally" lynched. Oddly, Mississippi,
as well as several other brutal slave states, is not listed on
this document.

I had never heard of Rebecca Lee Crumpler until
my trip to this museum. She became the first female
African American physician in 1864. When the Civil War
ended, she went to work caring for freed slaves.

Writer Zora Neale Hurston is fierce, even in wax!
How I adore this woman!

More than 100 figures – each costing $20,000-$30,000 to create – brought to life thousands of years of African and African American history  under one roof. They made me think, they stirred up a wide range of emotions, and they forced me to look at their lives and know that if they could go through everything they went through and still be successful, then I have the power to do the same.
Who knew I could learn all of that from wax?

It's always good to see a fellow Memphian being
honored in history. Rev. Benjamin Hooks fought for
civil rights, not only in Memphis, but throughout the U.S.
He served as executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992.
Since I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.,
I had to get a picture with founder Ethel Hedgeman Lyle.
As for whether these figures looked just as life-like as the ones I saw on TV? I say yes! A majority of the figures were spot on. A couple of them completely missed the mark, but to me, that wasn’t important. I learned that the exhibits were much more than “Blacks in wax”; it’s the museum’s showcase of the courageous “acts of Blacks” that made it unforgettable.

The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum is located at 1601 E. North Avenue #3 in Baltimore, Maryland. Click here to find out more about the museum, or call 410-563-3404.


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